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The Gardener

Documentary, Review, Theatrical Leave a Comment

Hidden away in Quebec, lies a 20-acre estate housing one of the most renowned gardens in the world: Les Jardins de Quatre-Vents. For several decades, the garden was tended to by Francis Cabot, who passed away in 2011. Directed by Sébastien Chabot, this documentary, The Gardener, ambles through Les Jardins de Quatre-Vents, capturing the foliage in pristine and colourful HD.

Having been interviewed just before his passing, Cabot, alongside friends and family, is on hand to provide a sort of running commentary about the time and decision making that went into his creation. Cabot tended to his garden like Willy Wonka tackled chocolate; planting – excuse the pun – musical statues, mirrors, secret doors and hidden stone wolves in hideaway places. Cheeky little embellishments which somewhat burst the pomposity within the ornate greenery.

And let’s be honest here, as we make our way around his grounds, it’s clear that Cabot’s tale is hardly one of rags to riches. No, Cabot came from good stock and his garden is a sought-after excursion which is closed off from the public for a large part of the year. Whilst all but one of the talking heads that feature in The Gardener fail to mention it, a lot of money was pumped into what we see. You don’t get an ornate Japanese tea house built in the traditional manner with less than $5 in your pocket.

As a result, The Gardener could come across as an act of bragging. Yet, somehow, it just about manages to skirt this issue. What it gives us instead is access to the imagination of a man who, like any other creative person, worked tirelessly to achieve his ends. You can see it in every crisp new shot that Chabot doles out to us. Alongside the piano accompaniment, quite honestly, this is the cinematic equivalent of a relaxation tape and it’s all the better for it.

Whilst it might not do much narratively speaking, The Gardener is a summer treat for the eyes at the very least.

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Blue Velvet Revisited

Documentary, experimental, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Back in 1985, a young German filmmaker named Peter Braatz corresponded with director David Lynch (fresh off the ill-fated Dune) during pre-production on his upcoming film Blue Velvet and pitched the legendary artist/filmmaker the idea of documenting his new film’s production on Super 8mm. Lynch was up for it and afforded Braatz total access. What Braatz captured is the minutiae of the day to day filming, short interviews with actors such as Kyle MacLachlan, Lynch-regular Jack Nance, Brad Dourif (“I wouldn’t play this type of role for any other director”), Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini and Laura Dern. Production crew are less forthcoming, though Braatz captures audio of almost everyone discussing aspects of the production; cinematographer Frederick Elmes keeps mostly to himself, even so there’s a considerable amount of Super 8mm and stills from the set documenting (largely in chronological order) the shooting of all the key scenes.

If Blue Velvet was a film that held sway over your brain when you first experienced it and lingers still, then this film is a stream of consciousness resurgence of all the free-form dream logic that Lynch unleashed on us to mess with our brains those thirty odd years ago. Seeing the mundanity of the production that helped create it, is something of a joy to watch. The editing style is fragmented and drifts pleasantly along, audio interviews form a large part of the narration, peppered with short Super 8mm interviews that were captured by Braatz with Lynch, who gives his impressions of how the production is going.

This will absolutely appeal to fans of Lynch and Blue Velvet though the style is not the most accessible. The footage, as it stands, is phenomenally crisp and clear and the feeling of time and place is startling’ that said, it would’ve been great to hear the surviving cast members recall their experiences on the film retrospectively. This is a must see for Lynch fans and for those in the thrall of the ‘mysteries of love’.

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Backtrack Boys

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Bernie Shakeshaft is a jackaroo, and this documentary is essentially about the residential youth programme he runs on the outskirts of Armidale in NSW. Kids (predominantly boys) who are troubled – and in trouble – go there to continue their education, as a last chance before “juvie”. A key part of the process is the way they work and bond with Shakeshaft’s dogs, preparing them for dog-jumping competitions.

So far so straightforward, and indeed after five or ten minutes it seems that the point – admirable though it may be – has been made, and that the feature length of Backtrack Boys is superfluous. Happily, this is not the case at all, though, because the film grows in depth and as we get to know more about some of the boys – and the personalities of them and their wonderfully big-hearted mentor – it becomes very moving and suspenseful.  (The dogs themselves are rather engaging too, incidentally.)

The focus is principally on two lads, a 12-year-old called Rusty and a very likeable older (aboriginal) guy called Zach. They’ve both had pretty tumultuous pasts, and they’re both facing the ghastly prospect of imminent incarceration. Shakeshaft calls a spade a spade – at one point he tells someone not to “carry on like a fuckwit” – but can also be almost poetic in the way he describes the crushing emotional effect of the inevitable disappointments. (“There’s only so many times you can suck the soul out of something before it turns pear-shaped”.)

This is very affecting viewing, by turns harrowing and inspiring.

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Putin’s Witnesses

Documentary, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

One of the titular witnesses here is the film’s director and narrator, Vitaly Mansky. “Tacit consent turns witnesses into accomplices,” he observes. And he should know, having been a key accomplice of Vladimir Putin’s from the get-go: most of the footage here was originally shot in order to help Putin’s first (2000) election campaign. Mansky has since ‘seen the light’, and now revisits that period in a mood of deep retrospective concern and apparent regret.

Anyone can change their mind, of course, but there’s something a tad uncomfortable – maybe disingenuous – here. Still, the result is interesting, and just occasionally fascinating. There is revelatory stuff – a mixture of interviews, chat and (rather too much) family footage – about Boris Yeltsin, of whom Putin was the carefully nurtured protege… some candid depiction of media manipulation…  snapshots of Kremlin life a year after Putin took power… and, most engrossing of all, an interview with Putin himself. Two things which didn’t feature much at all in the campaign were debates and promises!

Vitaly Mansky reveals that only one of Putin’s key supporters from those days is still with him, and succinctly summarises the crackdown on dissent and return to centralisation of power which have occurred. It should all have made for gripping viewing; in the event, it’s only intermittently compelling – and never anywhere near as much as The Putin Interviews by Oliver Stone.

Also screening at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival, October 9 – 14, 2018

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The Cleaners

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

If you squint, you could probably picture the subject matter of The Cleaners setting the scene for a ‘60s Western. Within the first five minutes the big players are introduced: The government (Google) rules the planes, led by a few leading lawmakers (Executives). The common people (Users) are occasionally terrorised by evil outlaws (Who look just like us…), only to be saved by a group of heroes or vigilantes (The Cleaners). These heroes only have one purpose – to protect the innocent and serve justice to the perpetrators.

The problem is, the moderators in The Cleaners aren’t the same clear-cut band of vigilantes that you might see in, say, The Magnificent Seven. Given a strict set of guidelines and little to no context per case, the decisions made by these ‘internet police’ could be construed as unjust, censorship or promoting of hate speech and violence. The Cleaners sets out to explore this while also discussing the potentially devastating mental effects that such a job can have on its workers. ‘It’s slowly penetrating my brain…’ one says. ‘I need to stop. There’s something wrong happening.’

The Cleaners explores the darkest corners of the web while juggling the ethical implications of censorship on art, culture and politics. With so much content to discuss, the documentary does a commendable job at covering all bases. The Cleaners also does well to establish the dramatic contrast between how social media is presented by corporate execs and what actually goes on behind the scenes, occasionally cutting back to court cases which represent the legal side to internet exploitation. In the process however, the human side to The Cleaners is occasionally lost. Much like the cleaners themselves, the real emotion behind the documentary seems to be hidden somewhere behind its neutral facade. This is not aided by the fact that much of the content that distresses the moderators is not shown on camera.

The Cleaners is well produced, and the graphics littered throughout add to the overall aesthetic of the film. It comprehensively tackles controversial topics and provides food for thought, especially regarding the sacrifice made by so many moderators to keep the internet a safer place. It is an eye-opening experience, but one that could have perhaps been handled with a little more humanity.